"The Living Brochure of Your Own Awesomeness"

Sunday sermon from September 1, 2013
Texts: Revelation 22:1-5, Genesis 11:1-9
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

Last Saturday night an amazing thing happened out in Los Angeles. Broadway superstar and occasional television actress Kristen Chenoweth was giving a series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and, as the night wore on, she reached the part of her set where she would usually invite somebody from the crowd up to sing alongside her -- usually they would sing the witches' duet "For Good" from the musical Wicked, which would allow Chenoweth to sing in the role that first put her name in lights. Now, normally, this part of the show is played just a bit for laughs. Not that we're making fun of the bad singers, but part of the bit is Kristen helping them along, helping them remember the words, providing the training wheels to get them through the end of the song. It's played for laughs, and for sentiment, and nobody really expects a virtuoso performance. But last Saturday, Kristen brought up on stage a young woman, a young musician, who knocked the song out of the park. She was, in a word, amazing. Kristen was visibly wowed and impressed. The crowd went wild. Videos went viral on YouTube - (she's up close to fifty thousand hits) The next day, the singer published her whole story up on the website BroadwayWorld. It's an amazing and inspirational story. For an aspiring performer, it's the chance of a lifetime, and in its wake you can sense her trying to figure out how to chase this opportunity as far as she can, how to get from that Saturday night to some future where her own name would be the one in lights.

The singer's name was Kellie McKay, and her story has only one problem, which is that on the night before, on Friday night, the same exact thing had happened to somebody else. On the night before, Kristen Chenoweth had picked another aspiring young singer from the crowd to come and sing the duet, and she, too, just about stopped Kristen in her tracks. She, too, brought down the house. Her video also went viral, but it's now up close to three million hits. She, too, got to write all about it for BroadwayWorld, but her testimony is now being quoted in national news. Two weeks ago she was a voice teacher at a small college; now, she's been rebooked for her next gig at the Hollywood Bowl. Her name is Sarah Horn, and it's about to be in lights. And her performance was legitimately amazing. If the video didn't cross your path this week, go and seek it out. What's most amazing about it is not just her vocal talent but the fact that she gives everything to it, without warning, without warming up, without so much as a glance at the lyrics. It's is totally inspirational. That being said, Kellie"s performance is nothing to sneer at. She, too, is brilliant at what she does, and I submit that the primary reason that there is not currently a campaign to put her name in lights is that we just can't quite handle having two of the same viral news story happening at the same time. As I have watched Sarah's video this week, more than a few times, I have thought more than once about Kellie, and how hard it must be to watch someone else take the parking spot for your dream right before you get there. As much as we might like to claim otherwise, it's not hard to imagine a future in which Sarah Horn's name is very much in lights, and Kellie not so easily found.

We'll come back to Sarah and Kellie, but I begin with their twin story because our text for this morning is very much about the value of having our own names in lights. We have drawn to the last major story of these opening chapters of Genesis, the story of the tower of Babel. Like so many of the stories we've encountered this summer, the Babel story is its own kind of origin story, this time we find Israel attempting to understand the spread and diversity of human languages. But the proliferation of language in this story is God's reaction to a human project - the building of the tower - that on its face has no obvious connection to language. Rather, the central moral arc of this story is really about success, and accomplishment, and getting our own name up in lights.

We finds all of humanity wandering, migrating through some unnamed land, much of course the same as Israel will wander through the wilderness on its way out of Egypt. And the scariest part about being in the wilderness isn't starvation or violence but rather that Israel would lose its own sense of identity, that without a city of their own or a land of their own or someplace they could call home, that the people of Israel would just kind of dissolve; slowly, over the generations, they'd become indistinguishable from so many of their ancient neighbors. It's not hard to imagine them wandering through that wilderness and gazing with some longing and some jealousy at the cities that were not theirs to live in, at the great fortifications that were not theirs to defend, and the great towers that were not theirs to boast upon. It's not hard to imagine the anxious envy borne of some desperate hope of preserving the name of Israel even with so little to show for the work of their hands. And so they would tell this story: of that prehistoric moment when all humanity, wandering through the same kind of wilderness, conspired to make their presence known: "Come, let us build ourselves a city," they said, "and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves."

It's easy to sympathize. For Israel, making a name for themselves, getting their name in lights, isn't about ego: it's about survival. It's an indictment of the political and military realities of the day, that without a city and without a tower, their survival and their name would stand on the brink of extinction. But in some ways I think our modern quest to make a name for ourselves is borne from such similar anxiety. After all, having lived this dream moment onstage with her musical idol, Sarah Horn's task, according to the unwritten rules of American celebrity and American success, Sarah's job now is to take this chance encounter and leverage it for all it is worth: she's newly on Facebook; she's newly on Twitter; having so beautifully risen to the occasion last Friday, she's now putting that same reckless abandon to the service of her own dreams. She's putting herself out there, encouraging friends and family to write-in her name for an appearance on Ellen; for someone who claimed to be a bit afraid of the spotlight, she's now working it for all it's worth. And I mean no personal criticism: in the age of reality media, this is I think how the American Dream works, that we wander through this wilderness and we look around at our neighbor's house and our neighbor's city and our neighbor's tower and try to figure out what it's going to take for us to secure our place and make a name for ourselves.

There's a business consultant and speaker named Scott Ginsberg, whose claim to fame and rise to fame stems largely from the fact that for upwards of the last four thousand days he's been wearing a name tag. Now I imagine that this would cause any number of logistical difficulties. I mean, I can barely wear a name tag for the better part of an afternoon before it begins to lose its stickiness or it just falls off entirely, and I'm not even trying to wear one while I sleep or in the shower. Apparently, and I'm taking this right from his website, apparently he actually has one tattooed on his chest for "special occasions." And surely there is something to be said for having that name tag at all times, for the hospitality that we create when everybody already knows our name without straining to remember. But it's worth noting that part of his strategy is precisely about branding and marketing his own name. His whole sales pitch is about helping you brand and market you, to help you become "the living brochure of your own awesomeness." That's the whole point; he says "if you don't make a name for yourself, someone will make one for you. And if might not be the one you want."

But surely it's more than just that. Surely it's not just that we will have the wrong name, but rather that in the great wilderness of modern life that our names will be forgotten entirely, that we'll disappear between the cracks, that we'll vanish upon the wind, that neither time nor history will ever particularly notice that we were here. So the hunt is on: for a new job, a new title, a new car, a new house, a bigger house, a fancy kitchen, all of the trappings of wealth and success. Conventional wisdom says we love this stuff because it shows our success off to the world. But I think we love it because we hope it will show off our value to ourselves, because we think it will quell that voice inside us that says "You're a small fish in a pretty big pond; you're lost in a pretty big wilderness; how can you ever hope to find your way? Why would you be worth anything more?" So when fate gives you a moment. So when chance puts you on stage with fame and glory you take that moment by the horns. You go all in. Because it's a tough, unforgiving wilderness out there, and, you either get your name in lights, or it's lights out.

The problem, of course, is that the game is fundamentally broken. How often are we just a day late for circumstances entirely beyond our control - just ask Kellie. But more than that: the game is fundamentally broken, because it never quite provides the sense of safety and security, it never quite provides the sense of value that we so desperately want. It's easy enough to wander through the American wilderness and look at our neighbor's city and look at our neighbor's tower and imagine that if only we had one of those, we would fill some hole inside ourselves, that we would discover some as-of-yet-unseen value inside ourselves, that our lives would mean something more.

But it seems to me that that hole inside us - that black hole inside us - cannot be filled by anything we do for ourselves. It just devours everything we put in its path. That new job title disappears. That new house or new car won't even make a mark. There's always going to be a better job, and there's always going to be a bigger house, and there's always going to be, and there's always going to be, and there's always going to be that hole. That's what this story is about: it's Israel reckoning with the fundamentally flawed project of humanity trying to plug that hole, trying to value itself, trying to give itself worth, trying to name itself. Because you know that even if they had finished the tower, even a tower that scratched the heavens themselves, they would look across the plain and see one even bigger. One with a two-car garage. One with a nice gas range. One with a walk-in closet. And it would never be enough to give them the value they so desperately needed. And it would never be enough to give them the name they so desperately craved.

But here's the thing. They've already been named. They've already been named. In the opening lines of Genesis 5, one of the less-remembered corners of these early chapters, the writer retells the creation story, saying that "When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God ... and he blessed them and named them 'Humankind.'" Long before humanity embarks on the construction of the Babel tower - even before the cataclysm of the flood and God's promise to Noah - humanity has already been named, has already been claimed, has already been owned, has already had its value written upon it by God our creator. The flaw in the design of the tower of Babel isn't just that it can't fill the hole inside the human heart; it's that that hole has already been claimed and loved and owned and, yes, named.

Nor is this some passing Biblical moment; in our New Testament reading this morning, in the closing verses of Revelation, in John's vision of the city of God, he sees that "nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads." Tattooed, if you like, in case we forget. Because we forget. Because the names we give ourselves lose their stickiness; they come off in the wash; they don't even last the afternoon. But the promise of the Gospel is that God's name is upon us even before we can begin to speak our own. That God's name is upon us through every moment of our wandering, through every envious and jealous thought, through every fearful and anxious and sleepless night, through every broken dream and misled ambition and deepest despair, even into the depths of the black hole inside ourselves, God's name is written upon our hearts, and it will be there even unto the end.

Many of you know that for years I was a member at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, a church that has a longtime relationship with the University of Virginia. Every Sunday, especially during the academic year, especially starting right about now, the left transept of the church is largely overrun with undergraduates. But of course once the fall starts to wind down and exams start to kick into gear the Sunday morning attendance drops off just a bit; students are forced into long hours at the library and it's understandably harder to carve out time for Sunday morning. So just before exams would kick into gear, the pastor there would always take a moment in worship to turn to the students directly and say this: "I know exams are coming, but remember this: your worth is not measured by grades or report cards or transcripts, but by the grace of God, which is from everlasting to everlasting."

Now, I was never an undergraduate at UVa; those words were never quite meant for me, but I still needed to hear them. I think we all need to hear them from time to time, because the world offers us so many opportunities to define ourselves, to be measured for our own worth, to be examined for our own value, to make names for ourselves. But from the first moments of creation, and again in the waters of baptism, and even unto the ends of the earth, we have already been named. We have already been loved. And our value is tattooed on our foreheads, as it has been since the dawn of time, and will be even into the eternal city of God. So today I say unto all of you: "I know exams are coming, but remember this: your worth is not measured by grades or report cards or transcripts, or by performance reviews or tax returns or any of the unwritten trials of modern life, but by the grace of God, which is from everlasting to everlasting." Amen.